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Embalmers prepare for bioterrorism

Funeral directors ask for Homeland Security grants to buy equipment.
Monday, April 11, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:04 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The tools of the trade for funeral directors normally consist of embalming fluid, safety gowns and sterile gloves.

But thanks to the greater scrutiny now given to homeland security, Missouri funeral directors could soon find themselves wearing full-body biohazard suits when preparing a body for its final farewell.

“With these kinds of situations, if they are treating sick people, doing embalming or handling emergency burials, the embalmer or funeral director would have to wear protective clothing,” said Don Otto, executive director of the Missouri Funeral Directors Association.

Federal regulations require anyone handling bodies exposed to certain toxic chemicals to wear protective suits, he said. The group is in preliminary discussions with the state to obtain financial assistance to cover the costs of the added safety equipment.

The exact costs of such protective clothing are difficult to determine because of price reductions given for bulk purchases, said Susie Stonner, a spokeswoman for the State Emergency Management Agency.

Whatever the price tag, many of the northeast Missouri funeral home directors who attended a recent district meeting in Bevier hope to get some financial help from the federal government via the state agency, which administers a $42.2 million Department of Homeland Security grant received last year.

“We want to make sure Missouri is prepared in any event and Missouri has its fair share of the Homeland Security funds to protect Missouri citizens,” Otto said. “We are trying to contact people to see what can be done and what money is available. I don’t care who gets the money or who owns the moon suits or where it is stored, as long as it is available in event of an emergency.”

The state agency has provided 28 homeland security response teams — primarily firefighters, police officers, ambulance workers and other emergency personnel — with decontamination outfits, biohazard suits and other resources needed for potential encounters with biological or chemical agents.

The state funeral home association’s desire for federal aid through the state may be wishful thinking, though.

Stonner, said the group would likely not qualify for Homeland Security money because it is a “private association representing private businesses.” But the state will withhold judgment pending a formal request from Missouri funeral home directors, she said.

The agency does plan to provide state funeral directors with free training this summer or early fall, she said. The training would include information on how to set up resources for disaster areas, how to check for remains or identify bodies and instructions on the precautions and steps needed for mass burials.

In disasters related to bioterrorism or any outbreak leading to mass casualties, federal help would likely be responsible for decontamination, Stonner said.

While funeral home directors may be forced to bear the added costs on their own, the state agency used Homeland Security money to purchase biohazard suits, decontamination materials and protective equipment for all first responders including law enforcement, fire departments and emergency medical services.

The notion of funeral home workers in safety suits may seem strange to some, said Vernie Fountain, who leads the funeral association’s emergency preparedness committee. But he said it is a matter of common sense that people should not be exposed to hazardous chemicals.

“If the biological agent is enough to kill hundreds of people, it is enough to kill an embalmer,” Fountain said. “Given the nature of the profession of embalming, if someone dies with HIV or infectious disease and the funeral home is called and an embalmer responds he or she removes the body and deals with the universal precautions to protect him or herself.

“When you magnify that by hundreds of people or different agents in handling of human remains it is a deadly sort of thing,” Fountain continued. “Staph infections can be minor or deadly. We need to be careful we don’t pick that up from a biological contaminant.”

Fountain speaks from experience. As head of a volunteer mortuary team tasked by the state with lead responsibility for caring for the dead in catastrophic disasters, Fountain recalls the 1993 Missouri River floods that led to 769 graves being washed out in Hardin cemetery in Ray County near Kansas City.

During that event, the committee and Army forensic teams were called on to identify remains and to assist in recovery and reburial of as many bodies as possible.

Rules covering protective safety equipment are set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. For mass casualty incidents involving the release of hazardous substances in a decontamination zone, hospital workers are usually the first to come in contact with victims.

Anyone within the decontamination zone is required to wear, at a minimum, an array of personal protective equipment: an air-purifying respirator, gas respirator, double layer protective gloves, chemical resistant suit, head covering and eye/face protection and chemical protective suits. Any suit openings must be sealed with protective tape.

In a post-decontamination zone, all employees are required to wear protection necessary to control infection, such as gloves, gown and respirators, if needed.

“Every embalmer has their own equipment. We’d like to have a cachet,” Fountain said. I am very careful. I wear a gown, gloves and scrubs like that to protect myself and some people wear face shields to keep biological agents from splashing the face.”


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